The Magazine

The Historians' War

The lessons of 1914

Jun 21, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 38 • By DAVID FRUM
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None of this is ever far from European minds. But for Americans, World War I looms a much smaller memory than World War II or the Civil War. Sergeant York aside, the First World War threw up few American heroes. It did not stir the profound emotions of the Civil War of the Revolution, and it lacked the moral clarity of World War II. Above all, most of the fighting was done by foreigners: America lost 114,000 men in the war, not even half as many as Romania.


As a result, the history of the First World War is a topic that Americans have tended to leave to British writers. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that. But the disproportion between America's sacrifices and Britain's (and the shabby way that the United States treated Britain after 1918) means that it takes a very fair-minded British writer to do justice to America's contribution to winning the war.


Likewise, because British wealth and power never recovered from the war, British historians are understandably tempted to wish that their country had never joined it and to write about the war in a spirit of regret over "what might have been." And from John Maynard Keynes to A. J. P. Taylor, that spirit of regret has all too often drifted into actual apologetics for Germany.


John Keegan's elegant new book, however, avoids both dangers. Keegan is a lecturer at the British military academy, Sandhurst, and the military affairs correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. His father, his father-in-law, and two of his uncles served in the British armies, and with The Face of Battle, he produced what is universally acclaimed one of the best accounts ever written of the actual experience of combat.


In The First World War, Keegan candidly acknowledges the amateurishness of the American soldiers (except for the Marines) and the defects of American tactics: General John Pershing refused to believe he could learn anything from the stuck-up Frogs and Limeys, and he ordered lines of doughboys to charge German machine guns in frontal assaults reminiscent of the worst slaughters of the early months of the war.


But Keegan also stresses the extent to which the United States was absolutely crucial to Allied victory. The last great German offensive, in the spring of 1918, penetrated deep into the British military zone -- where the ill-fed, badly shod German troops got a look at the Allies' colossal mountains of food, clothing, boots, and ammunition. And when the offensive sputtered out, the Germans began their long retreat knowing that 250,000 Americans a month were landing in France -- more reinforcements than Germany could expect in an entire year -- and that four million more were in training in the United States, a force larger than the entire remaining German army.


"The consequent sense of the point-lessness of further effort rotted the resolution of the German soldier to do his duty," Keegan says. The German army in November 1918 was still intact and in occupation of foreign soil. The Allies expected at least another year of fighting. But the Germans' nerve was smashed, and had the Armistice not been sought when it was, the Kaiser's army might well have simply dissolved.


As Keegan sees it, much of the horror of the First World War was an appalling accident of timing. By 1914, the killing technologies of the twentieth century -- the machine gun, the high explosive shell, the grenade -- were all available. But the technologies that could coordinate them purposefully -- the field radio, the tank, the airplane -- were still to come. So were the lifesaving technologies that reduced casualties in the West during World War II: blood transfusions, antibiotics, and perhaps most important, trucks that could move the wounded rapidly to a field hospital.


Keegan does not make excuses for Douglas Haig and the other blood-soaked butchers of the high command; as Prime Minister Lloyd George savagely quipped: "The solicitude with which most generals in high places (there were honorable exceptions) avoided personal jeopardy is one of the debatable novelties of modern warfare." But Keegan convincingly argues that one reason World War I cast up no military men like World War II's Montgomery and Patton is that 1914 offered no possibility for them.